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U.N. to send election team to Iraq

Thousands of Shiites have marched to demand direct elections.
Thousands of Shiites have marched to demand direct elections.

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• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
Paris (France)
Kofi Annan

PARIS, France (CNN) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the United Nations will send advisers to Iraq to explore the possibility of elections before the transfer of sovereignty this summer.

However, he added Tuesday he would dispatch the team if the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority provided proper security.

Most U.N. staff pulled out of Iraq in October, following an August bomb attack on the group's Baghdad headquarters that killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping to break the current impasse," Annan said, " ... once I am satisfied that the CPA will provide adequate security arrangements."

Annan made his decision after the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council last week asked the secretary-general for a mission to explore whether elections for a transitional national assembly can be held before the June 30 handover of power from the coalition to Iraqis.

In a November 15 agreement set down by the CPA and the council, nationwide caucuses would select an assembly by the end of May, and that legislature would put together a sovereign Iraqi government when power is handed over to Iraq by the end of June.

But Shiite critics of the plan -- particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraqi Shiites most senior cleric -- want direct elections rather than caucuses for the transitional legislature. Thousands of Shiites have marched to demand direct elections, putting pressure on the United States to find a compromise.

Some Governing Council members lately have spoken up in favor of direct elections, but coalition officials have repeated that while they favor refinements to the caucus plan, there is no serious alternative on the table at present.

The handover plan does call for three direct elections in 2005, but coalition officials assert that the machinery will not be in place for such elections by the end of June.

Planned for next year are elections for a constitutional convention, a popular referendum for the permanent constitution written at that convention, and elections for an Iraqi government as prescribed by the constitution.

The coalition said it hoped a U.N. team could come to a decision by the end of February, when a framework for the voting process is incorporated into a transitional law.

According to the handover plan, the transitional law "will formally set forth the scope and structure of the sovereign Iraqi transitional administration" and set down a timetable for approving the permanent constitution and holding elections under that constitition.

Annan has said "the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves." He said consensus "would be the best guarantee of a legitimate and credible transitional governance arrangement for Iraq."

The mission, Annan said, would "ascertain the views of a broad spectrum of Iraqi society in the search for alternatives that might be developed to move forward to the formation of a provisional government."

Annan also said he did not foresee the immediate dispatch of a U.N. "blue helmet" peacekeeping force to Iraq although a U.N.-approved multinational force was possible.

Speaking in Paris after talks with French President Jacques Chirac, Annan told a news conference sending a U.N. force would be a huge task.

"I don't think that for the moment that the question of sending blue helmets has been raised. One could foresee a multinational force authorised by the Security Council," he said. Such a force could help restore stability.

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